Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.
These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!
The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!
The ebbs and flows of exciting new job prospects and recruitment is slowing down to rest dormant for another cycle in international schools. More on this later in the post. Let’s pause for a moment and wind back to August before going any further.
You’re in August, just returned after a relaxing break, time to ponder and consider if you are staying on or moving on, as your contract is a perishable item, just like long-life milk in aisle 4. Before you know it, you find yourself in October (some schools drop the ‘letter of intent’ much earlier than this). You have to resign before squaring away that next job.
What to do? Am I fulfilled? Have I outgrown this place? Am I happy? Do I offer something unique? The questions, the introspection, the game of romanticizing and flirting with the dozens of possibilities of potential schools begins to become real. Then the practicalities and gravity of moving sets in…. shipping, housing, Visas, notarization, friends, the comfortable life you’ve created, police checks….. here we go again.
So you’re now leaving and have a good 6 months left at the school which saw something special in you when they first took you on. They hired you on all the skills, knowledge and passion for learning that you were bringing with you. Life was good. The cycle turns and rolls effortlessly.
And this is where ‘the game’ becomes interesting….
Who are you once you have a foot out the door? You’ve signed and secured a new contract somewhere else. Good for you!
How are you going to spend your remaining 6 months? What is your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? I believe that the true colors of who one really is, shine through in the last 6 months of their contract. This is when you see someone in their full light. Their morals, their values, their ethics, their desire, their essence, their personality, their qualities, their core…..
Are you someone who begins to:
- arrive late to work?
- use all your sick days?
- say less? do less?
- leave at 4 on the dot?
- gossip and be more negative
- and on and on…..
Or are you someone who:
- gives their best and remains consistent?
- contributes at meetings?
- turns up to organized events and supports them?
- is positive and works hard?
- still cares about learning and growing?
- has the desire to ‘finish’ well, right up to the middle of June?
- and on and on…..
I believe that school leadership and administration needs to connect with the schools that teachers are going to and share some ‘home truths’ with how things have turned sour (or not) in the remaining 6 weeks of the year. More like a follow-up conversation, a hand over. Sharing an appraisal or goals. We do that with our students, why not educators….. Maybe this would work…. maybe not. There has to be a way to circle things back.
Sure, leaders can have conversations with those who flag and meander. I think there is a missing link from the beginning of August. The ‘sun setting stage’ of one’s time in a school says a lot about someone. The approach we need to take should go beyond the signing of a new contract and hoping they stay true and consistent to what they have shown and been like.
Let’s finish well, let’s finish how we started!
Why do we have to manage grown adults ‘out of’ and ‘in to’ schools?
Whenever something bad has happened in the early years section of any of the schools I have worked in, I have always thought about this clip. Those unfortunate soldiers at the frontline of war who sacrificed themselves to protect the others, further back, further from the danger.
This is a comparison I have been making, mentally, for many years… probably since my wife became an early years teacher in a fee-paying international school. You see, what we have to realise and remember about early years teachers is that:
- they are the most at risk of scrutiny by parents, sometimes being peered at through windows and even, in some cases, filmed while they try and do their job
- they are the most at risk of emotional, irrational and often inappropriate outbursts by parents
- they are the ones who have to immediately justify their practices to parents who understand little or nothing about a contemporary education
- they are the ones most underestimated by other teachers and people in leadership positions
- they are the ones who do a thousand invisible things every day only to be questioned about one of them
- they are the ones who deal with faeces, urine, vomit, snot, tears, physical violence and tantrums with unconditional love and patience
- they are the ones who are treated like subservients because it’s often the first year or two that parents have paid for the “service” of education
- they are the ones who have to counteract poor parenting decisions in their purest form
So, next time you see an early years teacher… give them a smile.
They’re at work again, making things just that little bit easier for teachers of every subsequent grade level. They’re at work again, because despite all of the harsh realities in my list above, they absolutely love their jobs and wholeheartedly believe in what they do.
A parent recently asked me if I felt her children would struggle when returning to a more conservative model of education after several years in a PYP school… and an innovative PYP school at that.
She was mainly thinking about whether or not they would have fallen behind academically in the traditional subject areas as the system in her country, like in most of them, is very content-specific. I said that they may find there are things that they haven’t learned… of course! However, I told her, after several years in the PYP they will have the ability to access that information as they will be skilled in the “art of learning”. I reassured her that what they have learned, or haven’t learned, should not present them with insurmountable problems.
What they might struggle with, I said, is being expected to go backwards in terms of how they learn. Being put back into a traditional classroom set-up in which all students sit at tables all day, sometimes in rows. Being put back into a traditional teacher-student authority relationship. Being put back into situations where all students are doing the same thing, the same way at the same time. Being put back into didactic, predetermined contexts for learning. Being put back into a place where only a few forms of expression are valued. These are all things they might struggle with. These are all things that many children who leave PYP schools and go back to state systems struggle with.
The metaphor of a genie in a bottle sprung to mind as I was talking. We laughed about how the PYP has released the inner genie in her children, and children like them, and how it might be very difficult or even impossible to put the genie back into the bottle!
But, do we really want to?
Header image from here
My wife came home today and talked about how great it had been working with one of our colleagues on something. The way she talked about it really synthesized many of the things I have been wondering about recently, particularly with regard to planning, collaboration and why (or why not) people are able to do it well.
She talked about how the generation of ideas had been centre-stage and that this person had been able, so quickly and naturally, to adjust her initial ideas based on new information that led to inevitable change. Rather than be upset about it, take it personally or complain about this new information and the reasons behind it… she just adapted.
This is a great example of the ideas being much more important than the ego. This is something that is inherent in good teachers. They love to discuss ideas, to share them, to develop them, to change them, to play with them and even to return to the original ones! They know that these processes are vital as teachers struggle with the complexities and challenges of making things as purposeful as possible. They know that their part in this process is important, valuable and worthy of their time.
Most importantly, they know that the process exercises their brain, expands their thinking, keeps them fresh, challenges their intellect and helps them make connections with other people.
They know they’re learning.
Critical in all of this, also, is the understanding that we shouldn’t fear our own ideas, we shouldn’t fear “being wrong”and we shouldn’t be annoyed by the refining of our ideas by other people – that’s the exciting part! As educators, we try to guide students towards being able to exchange ideas without an adversarial approach – “I’m right… you’re wrong” – but so often get caught in that petty, dichotomous behaviour ourselves.
Take a look around you when you’re next at school. Look out for the people who…
- just come out with their ideas without second-guessing themselves or other people’s interpretation
- love to listen to other people’s ideas just as much as they love to say their own
- visibly learn and grow as ideas are shared
- refer to other people’s ideas
- have a sense of excitement, freedom and chattiness about ideas
- discuss ideas socially as well as professionally
- understand that ideas are not about knowing everything
- know that the discussion of ideas is time well spent
- understand that ideas are not responsible for the people who thought of them!
… and let them know you appreciate them.
By contrast, but equally important, keep your eye out for the “Idea Killers”! (see the fantastic list of 16 ways people kill ideas in this posting, from which I also got the header image for my posting)
Today, a lizard visited me. It was on my bag… for no reason, well seemingly.
It might have appeared to tell me that my universe is aligned, that the things I need are with me. Just the way it was that hot night in Bangladesh when the power had gone off for hours and my daughter, a month old, had cried and cried until a Gecko appeared on the wall. As I held her in my sweaty arms, my mind frazzled and her face red from screaming… the presence of the Gecko soothed us, reminded us of the presence of something else. Something both smaller and bigger than us.
Today, this lizard might be telling me that what I just read and the connections I have just made are profound and that I must stop and listen to them, just the way I stopped and acknowledged the presence of the lizard.
This is what I read:
“… geniuses of all kinds excel in their capacity for sustained voluntary attention. Just think of the greatest musicians, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers throughout history – all of them, it seems, have had an extraordinary capacity to focus their attention with a high degree of clarity for long periods of time. A mind settled in such a state of alert equipoise is a fertile ground for the emergence of all kind of original associations and insights. Might “genius” be a potential we all share – each of us with our own capacity for creativity, requiring only the power of sustained attention to unlock it? A focused mind can help bring the creative spark to the surface of consciousness. The mind constantly caught up in one distraction after another, on the other hand, may be forever removed from its creative potential.”
The Attention Revolution by Alan Wallace
These are the connections I made:
- We need to evaluate whether or not the “busyness” and scheduling in schools is, actually, exactly what Wallace is referring to by “caught up in one distraction after another”.
- We need to take some time to be very honest about whether or not students (and teachers) are, in fact, just being “caught up in one distraction after another”.
- We need to explore ways in which we can create “long periods of time” in which students (and teachers) can reach that “state of alert equipoise” in which everyone can be at their best.
- We need to make the relationship between mindfulness practice in schools and the capacity of students (and teachers) to sustained voluntary attention more explicit.
- We need to develop a sophisticated understanding of what attention means and move beyond thinking it is just either (a) listening to a teacher or (b) doing what a teacher expects students to do.
image by sergey245x on Flickr, shared under creative commons license
The word “ego” often comes up in conversations about teachers, and not in a positive sense.
We hear teachers being described as having a “big ego”. However, this is usually in reference to teachers who are confident. This confidence comes through by:
- consistently putting ideas on the table
- coming up with an approach and going for it
- refusing to allow oneself to be bullied
- projecting an image of confidence to students
- looking confident
- taking on the challenge of leading people
- stepping up to deal with situations
- consistently contributing to discussions in large groups
Sure, these can sometimes spill over into arrogance or an inflated ego, but usually only when people feel cornered, subject to critical scrutiny by colleagues or – inevitably – malicious gossip.
I think a teacher ego – in it’s negative sense – is much less visible than the things in the list above. I think a negative teacher ego manifests itself as:
- believing one is much better at one’s job than one is
- claiming good practice is obvious, yet not actually doing it
- being a know-it-all
- always referring to one’s own ideas, thoughts and practices and not those of other people
- making it clear that other people’s perspectives matter less than one’s own, either consciously or subconsciously
- consistently talking while other people are talking
- finishing other people’s sentences
- shutting people down
- consistently judging other people’s practice and behaviour
- believing other people are interested in one’s negative or critical thoughts
- struggling to see anything from other people’s perspectives
- consistently making everything about oneself
- making one’s problems someone else’s problems
These behaviours are subtle, divisive and destructive… and particularly so because they are not usually the behaviours of people who are often described as “having a big ego”. Instead, they are often the behaviours of people who come across as insecure and, as a result, are quite hidden.
I should clarify that I’m not writing this posting because of anything that has happened to me recently… some, but not all, of my postings are autobiographical! I guess I’m writing this posting because I would like to see an increasingly sophisticated understanding of:
- what confidence is and why it is important for young people to be taught by confident adults
- how to avoid writing off confident people as having a “big ego” and preventing that initial observation from manifesting itself as malicious gossip
- how to deal with the more subtle, egotistical behaviours that do more harm in our schools than any confident, or even over-confident, behaviours could ever do
image from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/positive-ego-nancy-steidl-1